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Fighting deliberate ignorance in the press

There have been a number of one-sided and ill-informed diatribes on higher education policy in the national press in recent months. Although often well written, their positions are indefensible and pose deep problems for UK higher education. And so it falls to the wonks to respond.
This article is more than 10 years old

Tom is a Strategic Manager at Imperial College London

There have been a number of one-sided and ill-informed diatribes on higher education policy in the national press in recent months. Although often well written, their positions are indefensible and pose deep problems for UK higher education. And so it falls to the wonks to respond.

Amongst these articles are Fraser Nelson’s article, ‘Britain’s universities should take a lesson from the land of the free’ (The Spectator also published a revised version) and Allister Heath’s piece last month, ‘Tell youngsters the truth: the UK needs you to work not go to university’. Heath and Nelson sought to address important issues but based on minimal research, both produced simplistic analyses filled with overblown rhetoric.

Nelson argued that “American universities are making dazzling progress while most British ones are in a state of crisis”, contrasting the performances of the two systems in terms of academic achievement, social mobility and sporting success. His particular focus was on the performance of the USA’s Stanford University, which he described as “one of the best universities on the planet”. There are a variety of issues with his analysis.

Firstly, Nelson confused the issue of independence, portraying the US system as fully independent while suggesting that UK universities are state controlled. In truth, universities in the US and the UK have both private and public characteristics. UK universities are not owned or run by the government. Similarly, many large private institutions in the US such as Stanford have benefited enormously from Government support: Nelson omitted the fact that 84% of Stanford’s $1.2bn funding for research came either “directly or indirectly from the federal government”. Stanford’s record is undoubtedly impressive but so too is the performance of the UK’s higher education sector. Nelson’s narrative of UK decline and US supremacy is based on some fairly questionable use of league table evidence.

How not to interpret league tables

League table performances underpin much of Nelson’s criticism of UK HE. He argued that the “it’s clear which is winning” between the UK and US higher education systems, arguing that UK universities are “hurtling down the international league tables”. Nelson wrote in the Spectator that British “universities are in relative decline”, citing a recent study which ranked the UK as 10th in the world. However, the findings of the report he cited the Universitas 21 report Ranking of National Higher Education Systems 2013 actually appear undermine much of his argument. Most damningly, the report provides no evidence for Nelson’s claim that the UK is “plummeting” down the league tables: the UK was placed 10th in both the 2012 and 2013 reports, which are the only two years in which Universitas 21 has produced their rankings.

In fact, the report is fairly positive about the performance of UK higher education. The UK was placed 2nd in terms of output but 10th for its overall score. It was dragged down by its low funding – achieving a mere 24th for resources available. Common sense would suggest delivering a high output performance despite relative underfunding is a vindication for UK HE, not a reflection of failure. If the UK were to have higher investment but the same level of output, surely that would represent a worse performance than at present.

League table evidence does not support Nelson’s narrative of UK decline in contrast to an all-conquering US higher education system. Focusing on the performance of elite US institutions (17 of the top 20 universities in the Shanghai Jiao Tong ratings are American) neglects the problems faced by the US HE system as a whole. One group of academics has argued that, given “the resources that it has, the USA is actually underperforming by about 4-10%” in the number of universities it has in the top 500 universities in the world. By contrast, they believed the UK has 36% more universities in the top 500 than might be expected given the UK’s size and resources.

Despite his use of quantitative data, Nelson scarcely discussed relative research performance. Nelson criticised the UK’s state funding for research for pushing “universities towards having papers published in academic journals, rather than forging links with the outside world”. While the REF method of funding university research is undoubtedly not perfect, the BIS commissioned 2011 Elsevier report testified to the UK’s strength in research.

Employment and university

The relationship between university education and subsequent employment is addressed by both Nelson and Heath. They have clear sympathy with the view that “investment in human capital, skills, FE and HE may not be worth it after all” as discussed by Andy Westwood recently this blog. Nelson argued that students have been “mis-sold higher education for decades [and] are finally waking up to the scam.”

Heath insisted that the UK faced a “jobs crisis made in Downing Street” as a result of universities educating too many students who will not be able to find a job that matches their expectations. Two main arguments are made. Firstly, that the UK will not have the number of graduate jobs to match the number of graduates being produced. Secondly, that the benefits are not apparent in terms of boosted earnings. The evidence on the first is unsurprisingly mixed given that it involves long term predictions. On the second, the evidence still suggests that university education improves both your employment prospects and your long-term income.

Just as Nelson misinterpreted league tables, Heath’s use of evidence was rather peculiar. Heath’s central assertion in his article was that the UK is churning out graduates despite most new jobs not requiring that level of education. His evidence to support that assessment is taken from US research which estimates that only one out of the top nine occupations expected to create the most jobs this decade require a university degree. The dire implications of this study, Heath asserts, “without doubt applies equally to Britain”. No evidence is forthcoming for such a conjecture and, although there will undoubtedly be parallels between the UK and US, this view remains insufficient at best.

The University Alliance 2012 report, The way we’ll work, is one example of a UK study that shows us something different. It highlighted that there are still indications that the UK needs more graduates, finding that over half of the fastest growing job types between 2001 and 2009 were in jobs where the majority had post A-level qualifications. Another report, highlighted by Full Fact, the Working Futures 2010-2010 report by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, estimated that there will be an additional 2 million higher skill jobs by 2020. If the “over-enthusiastic Establishment” were to look at the UK rather than US projections, they’d find good cause for thinking they are doing the right thing rather than perpetuating “one of the greatest social and industrial policy blunders of recent decades”.

Overall, university education remains an excellent path to employment. Heath scarcely comments on the fact that current graduate unemployment levels are undoubtedly the depressing result of an extremely deep and protracted recession. Despite Nelson and Heath’s arguments, the evidence of recent years remains that those who study beyond A-levels are more likely to find employment than those who do not. Liz Bell of Universities UK looked at the statistics. Here are a few of the key ones she highlighted: in the last quarter of 2011, 86% of graduates were in employment compared with 72% for non-graduate according to the ONS. The graduate employment rate actually increased between 2008 and 2010 (whilst falling for non-graduates) according to the OECD. For a more comprehensive report on the benefits of a degree, read London Economics’ report for BIS, the Returns to Higher Education Qualifications.

Graduates may well face a tough present and an uncertain future, but a university education has consistently delivered strong benefits for graduate employment rates and wages. Newspaper columnists, more interested in provoking controversy than exposing the truth, need rebuking when they fail to recognise the benefits of UK higher education, particularly when they abuse available evidence to support what is clearly an ideological position.

However, it is not an evidenced position they seek. These articles are the daily ‘drip drip’ of an elitist agenda that would roll back higher education to make it the preserve of the few. This is not a smart critique of human capital; it’s an attack on our society that we should be very afraid of indeed. Politicians already report sympathy on the doorstep for the view that there are ‘too many graduates’ – a view that is being entrenched every day by a willing press. We need to challenge this view wherever we find it before those same politicians find it impossible to get elected without supporting it themselves.

7 responses to “Fighting deliberate ignorance in the press

  1. There has long been an issue with the way HE is reported.

    You touch on a tip of the iceberg with regards to reporting of graduate employment. Under the economic circumstances, the graduate jobs market is doing pretty well – but a narrative seems to have got out that graduates can’t get jobs. There are those of us who have striven long and hard to try to correct that impression, and the more we can get on board, the better.

    I’m not so sure of the conspiracy theory nature of the rationale you put forward. In many cases, it’s simply the fact that bad news sells papers. ‘Graduate jobs market ok’ will never get readers. We have also long had a strand of political – and educational – thought that is opposed to widening access to higher education. Some commentators with long memories still seem to be fighting Robbins, and you only have to trawl newspaper archives to see that the turn of the 20th century saw a good deal of sneering at the redbricks that had just been founded – this lasted for quite some time.

    The sector could do with high-profile, vocal and articulate champions so that whenever a rotten article comes in, it gets politely and firmly debunked.

  2. Charlie’s last para is right and we can’t rely on the THE for this! At the same time, we would have to agree amongst ourselves – I for one would not endorse Tom’s unreserved defence of UK HE’s record on ’employability’; even if having a degree makes it more likely you will have a job than if you don’t have one (c.40% of jobs in the economy now require them) but you will likely be overqualified and underemployed and you will take the place of someone without grad level quals who will be ‘bumped down the jobs queue’. (See my book with Martin Allen ‘The Great Reversal, Young People, Education and Employment in a Declining Economy’ Radicaled press – through Radicaled on wordpress/ google it.)

  3. Thanks for both of your comments.

    Charlie, I’d agree with the point that bad news sells papers and that is a major reason for why columnists write such stuff. I’d also argue that the journalists quoted above – clearly capable writers – did not research the other side of the issues. It’s not just bad news, but unqualified bad news that they present.

    It’s not meant to be a conspiracy theory style critique – my point would be that these journalists could research the issue and see that many of these issues – such as future employment needs – are highly contested. However, they play to the crowd, supporting the views of their readers who, in all likeliness, hold the view that the USA is great; the UK in terminal decline; that there are too many graduates; market good, state support bad; that there is no basis for widening participation etc. I note your point on the tone though.

    Patrick, I think THE are pretty good, much more so than newspapers. As it is their area, this isn’t much of a surprise I suppose.

    Your idea about the degree meaning you will take a job of someone else surely is based on the lump of labour fallacy –
    The pile of jobs is not fixed.

    The underemployment issue is, again, like unemployment, an issue of the state of the economy rather than the utility of a degree.

    Thanks for the reference.

    1. Tom, Of course the pile of jobs is not fixed generally or in principle but at the moment with so much unemployment it is and in these conditions the graduatisation of c.40% of jobs that now reportedly ask for a degree is functioning to bump people who would otherwise have taken many of these jobs down the jobs queue.

      As to the Times Higher, it is not – nor does it aim to be – a champion for the sector. It sees itself as reflecting what is going on in the sector in an objective manner and plays the journalistic game of balancing one side of an argument with the other, often just for the sake of argument, eg. by giving space as it has in the past to climate change denial. A publication that sought to champion HE would not preclude discussion about the best way to do this but it would consistently defend the sector and rebutt reports and arguments that attacked it.

  4. While I would agree with many of the points raised here, it is worth understanding some of the evidenced counter-arguments – the proportion of graduates going into grad-level jobs has run at around 64-66% over the last decade (look at HESCU data). While there may be debate over what a ‘grad-level’ job is, the expectations of young people have been raised to a degree that cannot be met. Couple this with a very varied graduate population (we are now talking about 40% of 20 year olds) and saying anything sensible about this group becomes difficult.

    Regarding wages – When you look at wage data from academic studies (such as Walker and Zhu) the differences by discipline are dramatic with some disciplines showing no returns to HE and the wage premium falling dramatically for those cohorts that studied since the major expansion of HE.

    The UK’s myopic focus on HE is also addressed by the UKCES reports you refer to, which show that the UK’s skill-base in level 2 & 3 skills – basic / technical is awful compared to other countries. While you may complain that HE is not covered particularly well, at least it is covered. Contrast the coverage of the changes and cuts to HE with those to FE – most journalists (and people who went to university) have no idea what FE even is and the only other area of skills that they seem to be able to cover is apprenticeships.

    I agree that investment in human capital is important, but while the demand for graduates will continue it is still not clear that we are producing the right kinds of graduates or that we are providing the technical level skills required to support these roles. The UK’s reliance on service industries (characterised by a tier of management roles and low wage front-facing staff) has not helped it’s recovery from recession since these industries rely on high consumer demand, which has been depressed, and if we fail to consider the skills system in its totality, the future will be bleak.

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